Opera51 brought Puccini’s Tosca to Concord, in four performances (June 9th and 10th) with a double casting for the major roles. The company has used the theater at 51 Walden to mount full versions of major operas for the last 16 years with commitment and enthusiasm.
Tosca, a work of towering scale, is too big for a small theater and too intimate for a big one. What a wonder the Opera51 accepted and to some extent met the challenges. Confidence bred of experience must have emboldened this community opera company to take on such a task.
Bright and clear English supertitles run by Joe McIlwain and translated by Laura Stanfield Prichard (my daughter-in-law) not only provided useful guidance to the complicated plot, they also revealed a number of nuances I had previously missed. One of them was the first act reference to the handkerchief that Iago uses to inflame Othello with jealously in Shakespeare’s (and later Verdi’s) version of how the Moor of Venice and his wife came to so dreadful a place. Puccini and his librettists Illica and Giacosa clearly expected that their late 19th-century audience would know that the Tosca characters of around 1800 would have recognized that handkerchief. That tells us a lot about them, and about the heritage of informative history that we alive today can use to advantage, if we can figure out how.
Floria Tosca, a singer and actress well known in the Rome of 1800, widely regarded to be not unfamiliar with either hanky or panky, though only at society’s higher levels. Castrati would have been Rome’s leading sopranos and altos until 1798, so she is a recent arrival. Mario Cavaradossi, Floria’s current lover, a painter good enough to receive commissions from wealthy aristocrats and merchants, but also a revolutionary member of a group that hopes Rome and Italy will be rescued from tyranny by (if you can believe it) Napoleon. Baron Scarpia, ruthless baron and police chief of Rome under the anti-Napoleon regime, who lusts for Floria.
Several artists represented the major characters over the run:
Margretta Beaty’s Tosca exploited the extraordinary power of her voice to create an imperial Tosca not much different from Lady Macbeth or Medea. She could summon a steely tone able to shake soldiers in their boots, then fade it into loving warmth at the right time. That range of emotionally evocative vocal capability is rare on any opera stage.
Ashley Becker’s created an entirely different Tosca: A girl, probably from the middle or lower classes, who was lucky enough to have her talent discovered early and subsidized by someone who did not exploit her for sexual purposes, and then became a big star because she could sing and act so well. Her warm, vulnerable Tosca summoned images of Desdemona and Butterfly.
So what about Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, rightly regarded by people inclined to reflect about such things as the opera’s deepest probe into human understanding of existence?
I once heard Birgit Nilsson sing it while lying on the floor. I actually met her once, and know people who knew her well. I now ask the reader to imagine with me how Birgit and I might have commented on the Vissi d’Arte renditions the Opera51 audience heard in Concord.
Me: What do you think of Beaty?
Birgit: She sounds like me.
Me: How about Becker?
Birgit: … I tried it that way, but they said it didn’t sound good. A different voice. Do you have any more questions? I have to go somewhere…I mean…I…
Michael Prichard (my son) and James Liu instantiated Scarpia, who ranks among the most intricate villains in all of opera because of the nuances with which Puccini developed his character.
Prichard’s large, full, baritone-centered instrument of wide expressive capability reached deeply by mere tone quality into the depths of Scarpian evil, but he took the audience down there by small movements. He depicted an aristocrat, drunk on power, used to deploying it for private advantage.
Liu used his clean, knife-like tonal quality to dramatic effect. His Baron Scarpia was frightening in voice and movement, like a high-level mob hit man, the kind of person you would not want to meet in broad daylight, let alone at night. This Scarpia toyed with Tosca, as much for the sick pleasure of watching her suffer as to gain the carnal reward he demanded.
Puccini gave Scarpia no great tuneful passages of professional sociopathy suitable for stand-alone concert performance like Verdi did Sparafucile and Iago. Scarpia’s words and music show Puccini at his most subtle in melding the full power of both to realize a complexity of character that depends structurally on both and far exceeds any effect achievable by spoken drama. The role is among the most difficult to master in whole repertory of operatic tragedy. In this production, each Scarpia realized a vivid, distinct, but quite different version of evil’s many faces.
Mario Cavaradossi, the painter and revolutionary who is Tosca’s lover, was brought life by three tenors, all of whom performed the famous first and third act arias Recondita armonia and E lucevan le stelle creditably. That accomplishment was particularly notable in the case of Ethan Bremner, who due to illness had been unable to rehearse as scheduled but nevertheless met his responsibilities in the Friday evening performance.
David Rivera Bozon gave polished renditions of both arias due to his limpid, warm tone, crystal-clear Italian, and a talent for flowing lyricism that singers are either born with or have to learn by years of great effort to make sound as effortless as the tone the 33-year-old Bozón delivered consistently. Bozón made one mistake. Instead of singing consistently to his in-progress painting of Mary Magdalen, as most of his Act One lyrics clearly imply, he wandered around the stage showing off rather than staying in character as a talented painter musing anxiously over combined confusions in love and politics.
Cavaradossi Lucas Hickman deserves special mention as a favorite son. A native of Carlisle, he lives just up the road from the Concord theater. Not yet 26, he is tall and has an imposing stage presence. His voice is powerful, with already some baritonal coloring that will enlarge and darken as he gets older. His comfortable mastery of vocal technique is already startling. One can easily imagine his older voice filling major opera barns. [It should be noted that the theater employed some amplification of singers.]
Placed in a small, elevated balcony prison for the beginning of Act Three, all three tenors mishandled their opening E lucevan le stelle by singing it heroically, as they had appropriately in Recondita armonia in the first act. E lucevan begs to be a soft, melancholic soliloquy, ideally sotto voce throughout. Puccini intended a soft soliloquy.
In a small theater, performers’ facial and postural expressions really count. The full effect of Tosca depends on believing that Tosca and Mario have found genuinely singular newness of mutual emotional commitment against a background of highly adventurous previous lives. They are both veterans of many previous love affairs, but in the great duets of the first and third acts, Puccini gives an opportunity to surrender once again to youthful ardor, this time with the mellowed fullness of aged wine. In the three performances I saw, both sopranos and all three tenors took the audience to that rare place in both acts. Those passages alone could have justified Opera51’s mounting.
In all four performances, Filipino baritone Carlo Bunyi ably sang Cesare Angelotti (the man on the run whom Cavaradossi aids). Swedish baritone Max Rydqvist brought the Sacristan to life; he was crucial to Puccini’s comedic interruptions throughout Act One, acting as a dramatic sherbet and shepherding the onstage choir.
Conductor Alan Yost, one of Opera51’s co-founders, organized three dozen instrumentalists and two casts of principals into a coherent ensemble able to get into Puccini mode with limited rehearsal time, though the orchestra sounded occasionally clumsy and few times outright bad. Most of the time, though, Yost and his players found Puccini’s flow. Members of the Concord Band, Concord Orchestra, and the 51Walden board contributed by playing, including 51Walden’s Executive Director, Carole Wayland (in the violin section). Successful flute and clarinet solos bought an intimate piquancy to both duet scenes and the challenging opening of Act Two, in which Scarpia’s office (in front of the main curtain) hosts an interrogation that descends into sharp keys while Tosca and the Choir (behind the main curtain) perform a distant cantata in “white keys” (mostly A minor and C major).
Set designer Philip Drew placed simple Gothic arches in front of a cyclorama which lighted up with 3 different colors per act; it successfully evoked Rome’s Sant’Andrea della Valle and the austere sunrise scene atop the Castel Sant’Angelo. More than 50 pieces of set decoration, requiring 25 minutes to move/change/set up, included the important altar, easel, table and chairs. Robin Farnsley, who directed and starred in many previous Opera51 productions, built the period costumes. She was not available to direct the show, but her coat for Scarpia could have been brought out for a bow of its own.
Farnsley had to drop directorial responsibilities three weeks before opening night. Laura Stanfield Prichard (my daughter-in-law) took over. She remarked, “Our staging sought to build on the basic tropes of late-18th-century melodrama: a highly-posed and dominating Scarpia who expressed power through stillness and simplicity of dramatic gesture; fluid, dramatic heroic characters like Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Angelotti who bring flexible, expressive movement into their arms and hands; and comic characters (the Sacristan and the Choir) who appear as naturalistic mirrors to the tragedy, incorporating pedestrian movements and expressing frustration at the self-absorbed self-importance of the principal characters. Community opera productions can thrive only under the general direction of someone of capable of coaxing the best performances out of a stable-full of skittery racehorses; Prichard succeeded.
The stage crew included Technical Director David Siktberg, Stage Manager Jasmine Wiese from Carnegie Mellon, Assistant Director Gretta Beaty, Vocal Coach Pamela Wolfe from Brandeis University, Production Assistant Sam Morris, and Stage Interns Xochimilco Cortez from the University of Chicago and Katie and Kristen Nguyen from the Winchester Cooperative Theater for Children.” See the full program HERE.
James Prichard is a Yale physician and scientist who occasionally pinch-hits as a music critic. He happily discloses the minor nepotism of this review.